Circa 1940-42: HMAS PATRICIA CAM, centre of one of the most extraordinary episodes in RAN history - Photo HMASA CERBERUS Museum/AWM.
4690. The loss of the 301 tons gross RAN auxiliary minesweeper HMAS PATRICIA CAM, bombed by a Japanese float plane off Wessel Island in Northern waters on January 22 1943, must surely rank as one of the strangest and saddest individual episodes of the Pacific War.
On the date given PATRICIA CAM - another of Carlo Camanitri's Sydney-based trawler fleet before the war - had left the remote Millingimbi Mission heading for Elcho Island under the command of Lt Alexander 'Sandy' Meldrum RANR. With the task of dropping supplies in remote locations, the little ship had the head of the Methodist Northern Australian District Mission, the Reverend Leonard N. Kentish aboard, along with five of his aboriginal parishioners. Thus, with 18 crew, there were 24 souls aboard.
At 1.30 pm off Wessel Island a three-seater Japanese Navy float plane - the notorious 'Floatplane Joe,' which regularly harassed ships in northern waters - came out of the sun with its engines cut, and dropped a bomb into the little ship's open hatch. The bomb blew the bottom out of the wooden-hulled vessel, which began to sink immediately. Several men sitting on the hatch fell in, and were swept away. A man below, Leading Seaman Neil G. Penglase, went down with the ship, which sank within a minute.
With the two lifeboats shattered, survivors were in a group clinging to the one remaining raft and debris when the float plane, from the IJN's 734th Kokatai, circled and dropped its second bomb among them. This killed AB Edward G. Nobes and two of the aboriginal passengers.
For the next 30 minutes the float plane circled with its rear gunner firing among the survivors, but without further result. It then it departed Northward - only to return five minutes later to resume its murderous attack. This time the plane landed on the calm surface of the water, and the machine gunner went to work again - but still missing the bobbing survivors. One of the Japanese fliers then climbed out onto the plane's floats with a revolver, and began gesturing for the men to swim closer. Not surprisingly, none accepted this invitation.
The plane taxied around to the other side of the group, where Reverend Kentish, was isolated, clinging to a hatch. Sub Lt. John Leggoe, nearby, saw the flyer on the float gesturing to him, and with little choice Rev Kentish climbed onto the plane. Leggoe saw him being given water, and then he climbed into the aircraft which took off, carrying the first and only person ever taken prisoner in Australian mainland waters.
It would be years before it became known what had happened to the Rev. Leonard Kentish, and before a measure of justice was extracted.
With the plane's departure, two sailors clinging to another distant hatch floated away, and were not seen again. After a 12-hour struggle against a strong current, the remaining 18 survivors made it ashore on a rocky islet in the Cumberland Strait in the early hours of the next morning. Two succumbed to injuries on the first day. The survival of the others, and their rescue on January 27, was another feat of endurance - particularly a 35 mile barefoot trek that the CO, Lt 'Sandy' Meldrum, made to reach a coastwatchers station on Wessel Island to secure help.Of of the 24 aboard the ship, 13 ultimately survived.
After the war, the missionary's wife, Mrs Violet Kentish, made enquiries through every official avenue, trying vainly to ascertain what had happened to her husband. Noone knew. She began writing to the newspapers. A former Intelligence Officer, Alfred Wilson, read one of her letters in the Melbourne Argus, while commuting to work one morning.
Wilson had been in the Darwin area, and de-briefed survivors from the Patricia Cam. in 1943. He had also been on Macarthur's intelligence staff in Australia, and was not without influence. The intelligence officer used his contacts in the Occupation Forces in Tokyo to have further enquiries made.
Eventually, it was learned that Rev. Kentish had been taken to the Japanese-held Dobe (or Dobo) Island in the Arus group [now Indonesia] where, after much cruel abuse, the missionary had been beheaded three and a half months after his capture, on the fourth of May, 1943.
On the 23rd of August, 1948, the man who ordered this execution, Sub Lieutenant Sagejima Maugan, was hanged as a war criminal in Hong Kong's Stanley Jail. Two other Japanese servicemen, Hoyama Kenzo, and Kohama Shozuke were sentenced to life imprisonment for their part in the Rev. Kentish's execution. And thus ended this strange, sad episode of the Pacific War.
Photo: HMAS CERBERUS Museum Archives, kind courtesy of the Curator, Warrant Officer Martin Grogan RANR. Thanks also to Toni Munday of the CrestCerberus organisation at HMAS Cerberus for assistance. This photograph appears small in John Bastock's limited edition book 'Australia's Ships of War' [Angus and Robertsion, Sydney 1975] p233. It is also in the Naval Historical Collection, Australian War Memorial, image ID 30155, listed copyright expired, public domain, and in the RAN Archives, Navy Heritage Collection image NO. 00876. Additionally, it appeared in the RAN Centenary book '100 Years of the Royal Australian Navy' p198; and other sources.